Bewildering Stories

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R. A. Heinlein’s Between Planets and Starman Jones:
critical synopses

by Mark Koerner

Robert A. Heinlein, Between Planets (New York: McCall, 1951).
——, Starman Jones (New York: Scribner’s, 1953).
(Ballantine paperback edition used for both)

Robert Heinlein’s Between Planets (1951) and Starman Jones (1953) are science fiction juveniles. Both are stories of adolescent boys trying to make their way into adulthood in futures when space travel is commonplace. Both begin on Earth, and a major challenge each boy faces is getting off the planet and into the relative safety and security of outer space. In both cases, the boys navigate their way to manhood despite the obstacles so many others put in their paths.

Between Planets begins on Earth with the young protagonist, Don Harvey, in a boarding school in New Mexico. We learn early on that he was born in a spaceship in transit between Earth and Venus (hence the title), but for reasons unknown, he is now separated from his parents in a secure, friendly academic environment. He gets an urgent message from his parents saying that he must leave school and join them on Mars; he is to take a spaceship as soon as possible. A war with Venus (where a colonial revolution against Earth is in play) is imminent, and Don’s loyalty will be suspect, as he was not born on Earth. “Mars is likely to be neutral territory; you’ll be safe there,” his headmaster says. From the same conversation, we learn that Earth has a repressive political system; Don inadvertently lets it be known that he has read “Chamberlain’s Theory of Colonial Expansion,” a banned book he in all likelihood bought from a “booklegger” (chapter 1).

Don makes the trip to New Chicago (naming an Earth city “New” in science fiction stories suggests a Third World War in the not-so-distant past), where he meets an old family friend, Dr. Jefferson, who takes Don out for a night on the town. As the two are eating in a restaurant, they realize that they are being trailed by IBI (Interplanetary Bureau of Investigation) agents. Things go from bad to worse when they are arrested and separated; Don will never see Jefferson again. During Don’s interrogation, the IBI agent pointedly tells Don that unless cooperation is forthcoming, drugs or torture will be. Don tells all about his rather limited relationship with Dr. Jefferson, which establishes his innocence. He is released. He is told not to miss the next spaceship for Mars. (Heinlein wrote this book during the civil liberties nadir of the McCarthy Era, and it may be read as a warning against any further erosion of constitutional rights.)

Don gets on the correct ship, but the Venusian colonials on board hijack it and take it “home.” Weeks later, a voice says, “New London! Republic of Venus! Have your papers ready! (chapter 6).

Venus is a swampy, foggy, humid world. New London turns out to be a dirty frontier city teeming with Chinese immigrants. Billboards say, “ENLIST NOW!!! YOUR NATION NEEDS YOU” and “DRINK COCA-COLA.” (chapter 7).

Don meets a relatively friendly girl named Isabel and gets a job as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. He becomes as respected a member of his new community as any 14-year-old dishwasher can be. It turns out, however, that someone is after a plastic ring a friend from school had given Don. The ring is somehow connected to the web of interplanetary intrigue surrounding the Venusian war for independence. Don gives the ring to Isabel for safekeeping.

Heinlein’s Venus is a science-fictional Old West set in an ecology not unlike the Everglades. As it was in the mythic West, towns have telegraph offices for sending messages (dubbed “radiograms”) to distant places and the women stick to traditionally female jobs while they try to keep the mud from the street off their dresses. The older Chinese immigrants plan to return to China one day, just as they did in the California of the 1880s. But continuing the parallel, their more assimilationist children have other ideas: “The younger, Venus-born Chinese laughed at the idea; to them, Venus was home...” (chapter 8). The colonials even have the spirit of frontier neighborliness and mutual aid, which Don appears to appreciate (chapter 8).

The Venusian idyll is interrupted when Earth attacks the fledgling republic. Don is captured, sent to a prison camp, and escapes into the jungle, where he makes his way to a rebel camp. The rebels swear Don into the Venusian Army (chapter 14). Shortly thereafter, rebel officers are able to track down the ring Don had given to Isabel; unbeknownst to Don, it contains secret plans for making a new type of rocket engine that will tip the balance of power to the Venusians. “Venus and Freedom! ” will be more than a slogan. The grateful rebels transfer Don to the Venusian space force, giving him the chance to go to Mars and visit his parents in the first of the newly modified ships, The Little David. The book ends with Don between Venus and Mars — and thoroughly happy about it. His destiny, apparently, lies between planets rather than on them (chapter 18).

Starman Jones begins in a very different future. Written in 1953, it reflects one of the more dated concerns of that era: union corruption and union political power. Here the main character must fight corrupt labor bureaucrats rather than agents of the secret police. These unusual villains may be one reason why Starman Jones remains interesting today: it is as close to On the Waterfront as science fiction — especially juvenile science fiction — would ever get.

But the really important reason why Starman Jones is so readable is that people have personal motivations that grow out of their environments — and that have nothing to do with any science-fictional thirst for adventure. Starman Jones portrays rural poverty and familial brutality quite effectively. Max Jones has grown up in a world with interstellar spaceships (versus the merely interplanetary spaceships of Between Planets), but he has also grown up on a played-out farm near Clyde’s Corners, where he lives in a broken-down house without running water. His father is dead, and his stepmother, “Maw,” acts as a passable, albeit dimwitted, mother-figure until she marries Biff Montgomery, a mean and lazy man of narrow horizons who gets violent when he drinks. Realizing that there is no place for him anywhere near Clyde’s Corners, Max runs away. He takes with him the apprenticeship books of the Astrogators Guild (union), of which his Uncle Chet had been a member. He hopes that when he gets to Earthport, the Guild will accept him as an apprentice, giving him the opportunity to train as a starship astrogator.

If Between Planets is a Western set on Venus, Starman Jones is a science fiction railroad tale. Many small-town boys saw a job with the railroad as a way to get out of their constricted environments; it was as much a matter of economic opportunity as adventure. Max is one of those boys, even if he does grow up in the 22nd century. The book’s first page says that one of Max’s favorite activities is watching the C.S. & E. (Chicago, Springfield, and Earthport) Ring Road, which propels rockets along a magnetic field to launch them from Earth. He watches this “Ring Road” on a hill not far from his house, longing for a chance to get on one of those rockets.

Fleeing his stepparents, Max comes to a hobo jungle (another railroad touch) along the Ring Road. A friendly hobo feeds him. A few pages later, he eats in a diner, and is offered a ride by a Teamster (complete with a union button on his workman’s cap), who says he needs Max to impersonate a fellow Teamster so they can fool the cops into thinking they have the two required drivers in the cab. Max agrees (chapter 3). In such relative luxury, Max rides the magnet-levitated “truck” at two hundred miles an hour to Earthport. Because this is the most social-democratic of all Heinlein novels, working-class people and social outcasts generally will be the ones who help Max in his moments of need.

In Earthport, Max finds Astrogator Hall, but his hopes are dashed when the self important union executive informs him that the Astrogators Guild, like so many others, is a hereditary union, and because Max’s Uncle Chet never nominated him, Max cannot become an astrogator. And then the labor leader keeps Uncle Chet’s old apprenticeship books because they contain craft secrets and had always been the property of the union anyway. Uncle Chet just had the right to possess them while he was a working member (chapter 4).

Earthport is a big industrial city, not nearly as luxurious as the New Chicago of Between Planets. The disappointed Max finds a neighborhood

of a sort that can be found near the port in any port city; once off the pompous Avenue of the Planets, it became more crowded, noisier, more alive, and somehow warmer and more friendly... [T]he inevitable Salvation Army mission gave the street flavor its stylish cousins lacked. Martians in trefoil sunglasses and respirators, humanoids from Beta Corvi III, things with exoskeletons from Allah knew where, all jostled with humans of all shades and all blended in easy camaraderie... (chapter 4).

It is here that once again Max runs into Sam Anderson, the man he had met in the hobo jungle. Sam is a good-hearted rogue with a shady past and plenty of experience as a spaceman. Together, they hatch a scheme to get off Earth. They find a local woman who will sell them false identities as members of the Space Stewards Guild, allowing them to board the starship Asgard (chapter 5).

The ship lands on several planets, and Max gets promoted twice. When something goes terribly wrong with the hyperspace drive, the Asgard is forced to land on a seemingly idyllic planet, “Charity.” It seems unlikely that they will ever get off it. But it doesn’t appear to matter much, as Charity has a mild climate and bountiful resources. It seems, in short, a good place to start a colony (chapter 16).

The truth is that the Charity’s centaur-like beasts are intelligent and carnivorous. They capture Max and his female friend (not quite a girlfriend), Ellie, and it becomes clear that the centaurs plan to eat the humans. Max and Ellie are tied up and kept near the center of the centaur village, but late one night Sam sneaks in to save them. They make their way back in time to participate in a pitched battle against the swarming centaurs while the ship’s technicians manage to repair the Asgard sufficiently to lift it off the ill-named planet. So many of the ship’s officers have been killed by the centaurs that Max must act as captain. Sam Anderson was among the dead (chapter 19).

Upon returning to Earth, Max reflects on trade unionism for a last time. On the penultimate page, Max muses that “the guilds were set up wrong; the rules ought to give everyone a chance. Some day he’d be senior enough to do a little politicking on that point.” (chapter 22). (A radical in the 1930s, Heinlein had clearly moved to the right by the time he wrote this book; he still saw unions as useful organizations but they were by now just one more flawed social institution in need of reform.)

If the settings of Between Planets and Starman Jones are different in some ways, they are similar in others. In both books, Earth is not a desirable place, though for different reasons. (One Earth has no freedom and the other no opportunity.) And, in both books, affluent, respectable society is less interesting — and less genuinely cooperative and ethical — than the people who live on its margins, and it doesn’t matter whether the margins in question are a hobo jungle, an urban demimonde, or a raw frontier community on Venus. Moreover, even though Between Planets is more a space-Western than Starman Jones, Starman Jones has the centaurs, who act more or less like the Indians of Western lore who go around capturing white people and holding them in their villages. Finally, outer space is the adulthood destiny of both Don and Max. Only in spaceships are they truly free — and truly at home.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Koerner